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‘The Death of Stalin’ (review)

Produced by Yann Zenou, Laurent Zeitoun,
Nicolas Duval Adassovsky, Kevin Loader

Screenplay by Armando Iannucci,
David Schneider, Ian Martin, Peter Fellows

Based on The Death of Stalin
by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin

Directed by Armando Iannucci
Starring Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale,
Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs,
Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough,
Jeffrey Tambor, Adrian Mcloughlin

 

From subversive World World II comics to Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump parody on Saturday Night Live, political satire has long been an integral part of the pop-cultural landscape, serving as a cathartic breath of fresh air during trying times.

As Armando Iannucci has proved with previous directorial and writing efforts such as The Thick of ItIn The Loop and Veep, he is no stranger to this type of satire, but while his previous offerings have focused on contemporary scenarios, The Death of Stalin concerns a gruesome time period that is thankfully a thing of the past.

Satirizing such a serious subject may seem like a problematic or insensitive choice to some, but as any good satirist will tell you, it is often within the most volatile political situations the most impactful satire lies, as true satire highlights the absurdity without neglecting the severity.

Similar to Iannucci’s other work, The Death of Stalin is equally witty and sharp, however, due to the seriousness and complicated nature of the circumstances, there are additional nuances of darkness and an undercurrent of anxiousness to be found in his latest effort. As a result, the farcical absurdity of the situations depicted in this satirical mix of fact and fiction – and you may be surprised to learn which elements were true and which ones were not – are contrasted by depicting just how dire living under Stalin’s dictatorship was, which gives the film an amount of depth that is unusual for the genre.

There is no sugarcoating to be found here, but rather the startling realization of the kind of atrocities that occurred during Stalin’s regime of terror, as these are mentioned often and casually throughout the film. Such casual mention of subjects such as pedophilia, torture and executions is not callous, however, as the absurdity of the characters being casual about such serious topics is what underlines the severity of the situation.

Thus, The Death of Stalin is not a comedy that uses satire here and there as a way to force inappropriate laughs, but rather a genuinely satirical piece through and through.

As for the performances, all of them work within the absurd framework of the film’s narrative. Thanks to a combination of great casting, a well-rehearsed script and good cast chemistry, the various players may not physically resemble their real life counterparts all that much, but each cast member perfectly conveys the type of character they have to portray to create an interesting dynamic. Add to that expert comic timing and a clear sense of a method having been applied to the madness of the story, and what you have is a film that maintains its momentum from start to finish.

Among the numerous excellent performances, Simon Russell Beale – who is mainly known for his stage work – delivers a particularly memorable performance as spymaster Lavrentiy Beria. With deadpan delivery, subtle physical comedy and a truly unnerving undertone, Beale creates a character that fits perfectly into the comical mix without ever letting you forget just how monstrously callous the real Beria was and how incredibly cruel his undertakings were. Another great performance is delivered by Jason Isaacs with his boisterous portrayal of Georgy Zhukov. Making a rather spectacular entrance in the third act of the film, Isaacs steals every scene he is in, generating ample laughs in a film that already passes the Six Laugh Test™ during its first scenes.

Plenty of comedies have seen a cinematic release in 2017, and some of them have even been genuinely entertaining, but satire is usually reserved for the small screen in this day and age. To have a satirical farce such as The Death of Stalin be released is therefore a rarity, and it is even rarer that a film being marketed as a satirical piece is genuinely witty and not merely reliant on the outrage factor. Aside from its hilarious script and excellent performances, The Death of Stalin is a delightfully absurd and painfully relevant film, which makes it a truly noteworthy work of satire.

 

Verdict: 10 out of 10

 

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